Paludamentally yours…Thorin Oakenshield in Roman Military Wear

Thorin Oakenshield looking very Roman generalish in the DOS trailer. Source: Source:

Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) looking very Roman generalish in the TDOS trailer.

I have been trying very hard to isolate myself from the impending deluge of promotion preceding the release of The Hobbit:  The Desolation of Smaug in December.  I just can’t afford three solid months of constant distraction.   As such, *braces self for hue and cry* I haven’t watched the trailer yet.  I did, however, catch a glimpse of the image above and was instantly struck by how very Roman Thorin (Richard Armitage) looks.  With a mind toward NOT being sucked into the distraction, I noted it and moved along.  Then Servetus had to post this…dammit, now I have no choice! I will lose my Classical Tradition Club membership if I don’t formally address the Roman military inspiration of this look.

The paludamentum or sagum purpura (purple cloak) was the iconic red cloak worn by a Roman general (Legatus) and his staff officers.  Originally, it’s distinctive red/purple color clearly delineated between these officers and the rest of the army, which sported the sagum gregale (cloak of the flock).  Although the sagum gregale, worn by the rank and file, started out the color of the flock (i.e. undyed wool), it seems likely to have transitioned to a coarser version of the sagum purpura by the imperial period (27BCE – 476CE).  Outfitting the entire army in red garments would have been a mark of the great wealth of Rome – well, that and the fact that the Romans controlled the source of purple dye by then.

  • Brief sideline into the color purple… The Romans did not have an extremely detailed vocabulary for color (they would have been completely dumbfounded by the Crayola color palette!)  and their understanding of purple encompassed a variety of shades ranging from red to maroon to purple.  A deep, rich color like this was quite difficult to achieve with the dyes available in the ancient world.
Shells of Bolinus Brandaris

Shells of Bolinus Brandaris

  • In fact, the Phoenicians made a fortune selling Tyrian Purple, a dye extracted from the Bolinus Brandaris or Spiny dye murex, a mollusk that resides in the waters off the coast of Phoenicia (modern Lebanon).  The potency of this dye made it “worth it’s weight in silver” according to the ancient historian Theopompus, and put it well out of reach of all but the extremely wealthy.

Sorry…I got a little carried away there!  The paludamentum was a cloak that was specifically associated with warfare.  A general donned one for the ceremonial procession leading an army out of the sacred precinct of the city of Rome and was required to remove it before returning to the city…a sign that he was no longer a general, but a common citizen.

paludamentum mixThe paludamentum was usually worn over one shoulder and fastened with a fibula (ancient version of a safety pin).  Arguments abound over what shoulder was exposed, but it seems fairly clear that the garment was fastened loosely enough to move around, (if you look through the Cleopatra caps, you’ll see that the sagum worn by Epiphanes (Richard Armitage) shifts freely when he’s involved in a tussle in defense of Octavian (Rupert Graves)).

fibula cuirass detailIn addition to the details of the cloak and the fibulae (Thorin wears two), it looks to me as if he might also be wearing a leather chest protector (cuirass) that is detailed with an elaborate metal section.  If you look at the image of Ciarin Hinds as Caesar above, you’ll see a similar arrangement, which is well attested historically.  All in all, this is very Roman regalia indeed.

There is one thing that stands out as distinctly not Roman however, and that is Thorin’s hair.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Thorin’s mane, but the Romans were sticklers about hair.  In his biography of Caesar, Suetonius recounts that not only did Caesar keep his face shaved and his hair cut short, he also insisted that all of his body hair be regularly removed.  (Here’s to job security for depilatory slaves!)

Thorin’s long, braided hair and beard would have immediately marked him as a barbarian, a German even (no offense my German friends, but your ancestors scared the togas off the Romans!).  By the later stages of the Empire though, there were plenty of Romanized barbarians who had been assimilated into the Roman army.  In this guise, Richard Armitage could be any one of a number of Ostrogothic kings who rose to prominence as Roman power waned in western Europe.  I’m especially partial to Theodoric the Great.  He had grown up as a hostage in the Byzantine court at Constantinople and went on to recover and rule the remnants of the Roman west, promoting religious tolerance in an era of persecution.  I seem to recall Richard Armitage saying in an interview that he’d like to play an historic character, but not someone too famous…I think I might have found the perfect fit.

VALÉ Armitageworld


Hair’s to you Richard Armitage! (I’m sorry – I had to do it!)

**WARNING** :  There may be an excessive number of alliterative hair descriptions below…

This week’s  “oof” installment, with it’s discussion of Thorin’s luscious locks started me thinking about hair.  Maybe it’s a holdover of my hard rock days, but I have a soft spot for long haired men – in theory at least.  There is just something wild and untamed about a man with a magnificent mane…something powerful perhaps.  There is ample indication from a variety of cultures of the significance placed on unshorn hair.  It had a variety of meanings to different people…To the Nazirites of the Hebrew Bible (most famously Samson) unshorn hair was a source of power and strength.  To the Gaelic Irish, long hair was a symbol of allegiance to Ireland as it was infiltrated by colonial forces.  To the Sikhs it represents the strength and vitality of the whole religious community.   For many cultures hair can be a  “crowning glory” or when shorn, an indication of abject humiliation and scorn.

Although long hair seems to have been common for men in earlier periods of Greek history, after the 6th century BC there are clear indications that shorter hair became much more customary. (the Spartans being the exception to the rule.)  It’s not surprising that the increasingly militaristic nature of Greek culture in the 6th and 5th centuries BC would produce a trend toward shorter male hair…long hair must have been a decided disadvantage on the battlefield.  I’ve always been intrigued by some of the characterizations of the Persians as being overly coiffured and perfumed…for the 5th century Greeks this effeminate characterization of a feared and hated enemy was empowering.   While there are some Greeks who are represented as long haired in this period, the character who most regularly sports long, luxurious tresses is the god Dionysus.  This is doubly interesting to me since Dionysus is one of the gods in the Greek pantheon whose origins are not exactly clear.  There are several conflicting birth stories, and a lot of other stories that suggest at least some degree of connection between this deity and the exotic  East. (the Persians fall into that category as well…the Greeks were at once intrigued and repulsed by various elements of eastern cultures)

Dionysus and a satyr Source:

Dionysus and a satyr

Dionysus by Kleophrades Painter Source?

Dionysus by Kleophrades Painter

A relative latecomer into the pantheon, Dionysus was established as the youngest of the Olympian gods.  He is associated with the theater, but particularly with wine and reveling.  The vase paintings above show us the typical look of Dionysus.  He is most often depicted wearing elaborate Eastern Greek style robes and is often found in the company of satyrs and maenads.  One other main attribute of Dionysus is his elaborately styled curls and beard.   “Back in the day”  I used to pay big money and sit in the stylist’s chair for hours to achieve the kind of spiral curls that Dionysus wears.  Take a close look at his beard and you will see that some artistry has been applied there as well, to articulate the edges into individual curls.  Dionysus’ whole look is something that would have been a bit suspect to the average Greek, who after the Persian Wars, was inherently suspicious of things with an eastern tang.  The cult of Dionysus was at once a mainstream part of Greek polytheism, and also on the fringe.  There were ecstatic and orgiastic qualities of the cult practice that made more than a few Greeks uneasy…one only needs to read Euripides’ The Bachhae to witness what the cult of Dionysus might get up to.   For Dionysus, long curling locks represented an exotic, mysterious nature.

Love it or hate it, it seems that long hair on men is here to stay (My son is currently sporting a look that is somewhere between Dionysus and Shaggy -*sigh*  there are much bigger battles to be won!)  I love Richard Armitage and his most common close cropped style, but I have to say, the man can certainly rock the wigs and hair extensions…

Whether it is as Sir Guy of Greasy Locks….boozy and tormented in Robin Hood S3 Episode 1…

Sir Greasy...*ahem* I mean Sir Guy Source:

Sir Greasy…*ahem* I mean Sir Guy

Or a gloriously coiffured Sir Guy returned and ready for action after a trip to Price John’s personal stylist in S3 Epidsode 5…

Sir Guy of Gorgeous... Source:

Sir Guy of Gorgeous…

Or Thorin in the moonlight remembering a painful past…

Remembering past battles... Source:

Remembering past battles…

Or Thorin preparing for yet another fight….

Thorin bracing for a threat... Source:

Thorin bracing for a threat…

Or Thorin…who am I kidding?!  There are just way too many examples of Thorin’s uncrowned glory – and with two films still to come – the mind boggles!  Suffice it to say that Richard Armitage can hair act with the best of them!!

J.R.R. Tolkien, Peter Jackson, Richard Armitage and…epic heroes?

I had finally extricated myself from Hobbit fever.  With the exception of following some ongoing fanfiction pieces, I really had.  Well, that’s over!  The storm before the bigger storm blew into the U.S. on Monday when the first new images of Richard Armitage down under hit the web. Last year I was rather ambivalent about The Hobbit project, not being a huge fan of Tolkien and having an aversion to ginormous blockbuster film franchises in general, but the pull of Armitageworld was much too strong.  This time around, I’m not wasting precious energy on resistance since it’s futile anyway.  I was thinking last night about what to do…classics, hobbit, Thorin…classics, Thorin, hero….Thorin, hero, epic.  Aha!  There it is – Thorin as an epic hero, in the vein of Homeric heroes like Odysseus and Achilles.

Epic as a literary form appears in a variety cultures.  The Epic of Gilgamesh of Ancient Sumeria, The Mahabharata of Vedic India, The Epic of Sundiata in Mali are a few that come to mind.  Of the group, I would hazard to guess that the Homeric epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey are the most widely known in the western tradition.  Most of us educated in this tradition have either read them, read parts of them, or have encountered Homeric themes in one way or another along the way.  Many of the conventions developed regarding epic evolved out of examination of the Homeric texts, a fact which works out well for me.  The characteristic features of the epic hero are dealt with in numerous and sundry places, but The Victorian Web entry on Heroic Poetry does a nice job of summing the topic up in readable English at a single location, so all the quotes below are drawn from that synopsis.

J.R.R. Tolkien was certain to have encountered Homer in the course of his studies in English Literature and philology at Oxford, and it is not difficult to find the influence of Homeric epic in the pages of The Hobbit or The Lord of The Rings trilogy.  A simple Google search will reveal that much ink, both real and virtual has been spilled on the Homeric qualities of the Lord of the Rings cycle, and also on trying to work Bilbo Baggins’ quest into the epic form.  What I didn’t find immediately was any sign of people making the connection between Homeric heroes and Thorin Oakenshield.  (If anyone knows of such, I’d love to see it.)  At first glance, I think that there are enormous similarities, especially in Peter Jackson and Richard Armitage’s version of Thorin.

Disclaimer:  Before I continue, I’d like to note for the record that I’m neither a Tolkien scholar (The book was read to me in 2nd grade and I may have dozed through parts – don’t judge!  It was immediately after lunch recess and I was 7.  Besides, Tolkien apparently used it as a bedtime story.) or a specialist in Homeric poetry.  I’ll be referring heavily to the screen version of The Hobbit, and as for the Homeric scholars in the crowd…whatever, this is a blog, not a master’s thesis.  🙂

Thorin Oakenshield as an Epic Hero

1. “The hero is introduced in the midst of turmoil, at a point well into the story; antecedent action will be recounted in flashbacks.”

  • So far so good.  The action is well underway when Thorin enters the scene in media res preceded by an extensive flashback to the fall of Erebor (I particularly like the part where Thorin admits that he got lost on the way to Bag End…a deliberate reference to the wandering of Odysseus?  I don’t know, but I don’t find it in the original text.)
Thorin Arrives in Bag End Screen Cap from via The Heirs of Durin

Thorin Arrives in Bag End
Screen Cap from via The Heirs of Durin

2. “The hero is not only a warrior and a leader, but also a polished speaker who can address councils of chieftains or elders with eloquence and confidence.”

  • No problem – who wasn’t moved by Thorin’s speech to his assembled men, or more so as he spoke to his elder adviser Balin about “loyalty, honor and a willing heart?”
Rallying the Troops Screen Cap from via The Heirs of Durin

Rallying the Troops
Screen Cap from via The Heirs of Durin

"Loyalty, honor and a willing heart..." Screen Cap from via The Heirs of Durin

“Loyalty, honor and a willing heart…”
Screen Cap from via The Heirs of Durin

3. “The hero, often a demi-god, possesses distinctive weapons of great size and power, often heirlooms or presents from the gods.”

  • Thorin is not divine, but he is royal, and he does acquire a particularly special weapon in Orcrist which seems to fit the Homeric bill.  (prior to this is another flashback – this one to the battle with the Orcs where Thorin gained his epithet “Oakenshield”)
Discovery of Orcrist Screen Cap from via The Heirs of Durin

Discovery of Orcrist
Screen Cap from via The Heirs of Durin

4. “The hero must undertake a long, perilous journey, often involving a descent into the Underworld (Greek, “Neukeia“), which tests his endurance, courage, and cunning.”

  • Though not strictly an “Underworld” in the sense that Homer intended, the Goblin kingdom is certainly evocative of a lot of the qualities that we might attribute to a “hellish” place.
The Goblin Kingdom Screen cap from via The Heirs of Durin

The Goblin Kingdom
Screen cap from via The Heirs of Durin

5. “Although his fellows may be great warriors (like Achilles and Beowulf, he may have a commitatus, or group of noble followers with whom he grew up), he undertakes a task that no one else dare attempt.”

  • I am sure that there will be many more of these episodes in the 2nd and 3rd films, but Thorin’s heroic rescue of Bilbo from the side of the cliff during the Battle of the Stone giants is a decent example of his willingness to go over and above what others might do.
Thorin to the rescue... Screen cap from via The Heirs of Durin

Thorin to the rescue…
Screen cap from via The Heirs of Durin

6. “Whatever virtues his race most prizes, these the epic hero as a cultural exemplar possesses in abundance. His key quality is often emphasized by his stock epithet: “Resourceful Odysseus,” “swift-footed Achilles,” “pious AEneas.””

  • “Oakenshield” does not simply represent Thorin’s shield, but his character.  Oak is renowned for being hard and unyielding, able to sustain enormous winds and still stand…all virtues to be valued in a dwarf, especially a dwarf king.
The Oakenshield Screen cap from via The Heirs of Durin

The Oakenshield
Screen cap from via The Heirs of Durin

7. The concept of arete (Greek for “bringing virtue to perfection”) is crucial to understanding the epic protagonist.

  • This is a perennial issue for the ancient Greeks, the quest for excellence or arete…Thorin possesses this drive for excellence in spades, but he also suffers from the dangerous side effect…excessive pride, or hubris which led many a would be hero to his doom.  Thorin’s arete is visible throughout the film, but I think the most telling scene of his potential for hubris is the period in Rivendell when his pride threatens the whole quest.
Thorin beats back hubris for the good of the quest Screen cap from via The Heirs of Durin

Thorin beats back hubris for the good of the quest
Screen cap from via The Heirs of Durin

8. “The hero establishes his aristeia (nobility) through single combat in superari a superiore, honor coming from being vanquished by a superior foe. That is, a hero gains little honor by slaying a lesser mortal, but only by challenging heroes like himself or adversaries of superhuman power.”

9. “The two great epic adversaries, the hero and his antagonist, meet at the climax, which must be delayed as long as possible to sustain maximum interest. One such device for delaying this confrontation is the nephelistic rescue (utilized by Homer to rescue Paris from almost certain death and defeat at the hands of Menelaus in the Iliad).”

10. “The hero’s epic adversary is often a “god-despiser,” one who has more respect for his own mental and physical abilities than for the power of the gods. The adversary might also be a good man sponsored by lesser deities, or one whom the gods desert at a crucial moment.”

  • Not too hard to see where I’m going here I expect.  The final battle of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is rife with Homeric symbolism.  It is certainly not un-Homeric that Thorin is defeated by Azog, but still lives to fight another day.  In fact, far from undermining his heroic nature, that he survived a battle with a much superior opponent enhances his heroism.
Thorin in the grip of Azog Screen cap from via The Heirs of Durin

Thorin in the grip of Azog
Screen cap from via The Heirs of Durin

11. “The hero may encounter a numinous phenomenon (a place or person having a divine or supernatural force) such as a haunted wood or enchanting sorceress that he most use strength, cunning, and divine assistance to overcome.”

  • The film has not reached this point, but the challenges in Mirkwood and those posed by Thranduil or especially Smaug seem to satisfy this criteria as well

Even just this cursory glance through the The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has provided us with ample indication that there is definitely a Homeric quality to the characterization of Thorin Oakenshield.  I’m not so far gone as to argue that Richard Armitage is a hero along Homeric lines, but he sure does play one well at work!

Stay tuned for future installment:  Who’s Thorin:  Achilles or Odysseus?

A new Armitage endeavor

Hello, you may know me as Obscura – I’ve been hanging around the Armitage blogosphere for about 8 months now, reading, commenting, ogling, objectifying, you know the drill.  I  wrote a guest post for Servetus at me+Richard Armitage and I’ve recently started posting fanfiction at Dreamer Fiction.  I have yet to fully figure out WordPress, and it seems that the name Obscura is already in use…maybe by me? (I don’t know since I’ve never officially registered with WP.)   I hope you will bear with me as I learn the ropes here since I don’t really know how or if this first post will work the way I’d like.

Anyway, a few weeks ago a friend, (you know who you are) suggested, that I take a look around for reflections of Richard Armitage on Greek ceRAmics.  I don’t remember the context of the suggestion, but it got me thinking, and then looking.  Lo and behold – with only a cursory look around the corpus of vases, I found a number of images that either bear a striking physical resemblance to the classical features of Mr. Armitage, or a certain thematic paRAllels to scenes from his body of work.  When I thought more about it, I concluded, why stop with vase painting?  There are several media in the classical tRAdition where I might well find such representations.  Thus, a blog is born.  Every so often I’ll bring you some images that struck me as Armitage-esque in one way or another and add a bit of commentary.  I’ll also interject with things I find relevant from time to time – hence the among other things in the tagline.  No time like the present I suppose, so here goes:

The recent release of The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey has left me with Thorin on the brain.  It is, therefore, not surprising that I came across a vase painting that reminded me distinctly of a scene from the film.  I have seen the vase below dozens of times, but I looked at it with fresh eyes this week.

Eupronios Krater

Eupronios Krater

This vase, which dates to around 515 B.C.E., has a storied history of its own, but it is the central scene depicting the fall of the hero Sarpedon on the battlefield of Troy that I am interested in.  Here we see the winged figures of Hypnos (Sleep) and Thanatos (Death) lifting Sarpedon under the supervision of the god Hermes.  I see distinct similarities between this scene and the scene from TH where the fallen Thorin is removed from the battle with the Orcs by the giant eagle.

Screen Cap Courtesy of Servetus

Screen Cap Courtesy of Servetus

The scenes are certainly not identical, but there are a number of elements that echo between the two.  The fallen hero hanging limply in the grasp of his bearers and the imagery of winged rescuers are strikingly similar to me.  The image of the rescuing eagles flying into the rising sun can probably be read as a foreshadowing that for Thorin, unlike the dead Sarpedon, all is not lost.  In fact, if we play the film scene out further, to the carrock where the eagle releases Thorin, we might also see a similarity between Hermes, in his role as Psychopompos (bearer of souls), who will lead Sarpedon to the Elysian Fields – where Greek heroes go in death, and Gandalf, who will lead Thorin back to life by means of his magic.  I doubt Peter Jackson had this ancient scene in mind when he crafted his film, but I find the comparison rather interesting.

So there it is, installment 1.  Thoughts?